Friday, November 20, 2009

Simmons on 4th and 2

I've waited all week to see what Bill Simmons had to say about Belichick going for it on 4th and 2 at his own 28. And he delivered exactly what I thought he would. Which is also exactly what I think. In part:

So we're saying 55.7 percent, huh? That's the success rate for a road team playing its biggest rival, in a deafeningly loud dome, coming out of a timeout -- a timeout that allowed the defense to get a breather and determine exactly how to stop the obvious five-receiver spread that was coming because the offense's running game sucked -- along with that same defense getting extra fired up because it was being disrespected so egregiously/willfully/blatantly/incomprehensibly. I say lower. By a lot.

Statistics can't capture the uniqueness of a particular moment, and in this case -- with the Pats self-combusting, with a sure victory suddenly slipping away, with the crowd going bonkers, with a fired-up defense gearing up to stop them, with an obvious play looming (a short pass), and with everything happening during a drive that was already so disjointed that they had called two timeouts -- I find it really, really, REALLY hard to believe they would have completed that play 56 times out of 100 times with how they lined up. They spread the field with five receivers, eliminating any chance of a run. The Colts brought pressure -- happily -- ensuring a quick pass and a short field (so Indy's D-backs could hug the line of scrimmage). Given these realities, if you're feeding me "Here's what happened in this situation historically" numbers, shouldn't we be looking at the data for two-point conversions?

After all, this was essentially a two-point pass play. The Patriots went five wide, stuck Tom Brady in the shotgun, shortened the field and tried to find a quick-hit mismatch. Sure sounds like a two-point play. So what's the recent history of teams passing for a two-point conversion on the road? Peter Newmann from ESPN Research crunched those numbers for me.

2009: 9-for-28, .321 (overall); 3-for-10, .300 (road).
2008: 23-for-52, .442 (overall); 13-for-32, .406 (road).
2007: 14-for-38, .368 (overall); 6-for-23, .261 (road).

One other note: The "disrespecting the defense" card doesn't show up in stats. There's no way to measure the collective ability of a defense to raise its game for one play, as the fans shout the team on with every ounce of air in their lungs, while being fueled by a legitimately mind-blowing slight. In postgame interviews, four Colts defensive starters mentioned the words "disrespect" or "disrespected." And they were. We cannot account for this variable, just as we can't account for the difference of trying a fourth-and-2 in a deafening dome versus trying it at home against a lethargic Falcons teams in mid-September. I know it's fun to think stats can settle everything, but they can't, and they don't.

Exactly! The people defending Belichick are doing so in no small part because of a gut feeling that they don't like "conventional wisdom" or whatever. They seem to be primarily left of center politically who are also big baseball fans and spend a lot of time on the internet. This also describes me. But I also think that most of the people who are making these arguments don't watch a lot of football. Or they certainly watch and write about football less than they do baseball and basketball. They think it's an inferior game, in part because its reality doesn't stand up to this kind of statistical analysis.

I watch a LOT of football. Of all the people I know in the world, I would say that I know 1 person who watches more football than me. And that's probably pretty close. Hell, I tune into those Wednesday night MAC games on ESPN, which can actually be pretty entertaining. Football is so situational that while statistical analysis can help you (for instance realizing that going for it on 4th and 2 is a good idea inside the 50 almost all the time), it can't make decisions for you. Going for it against the best quarterback of the decade on the road in the loudest stadium in the league when you are in a mess of a drive and totally confused about what's going on is a terrible idea.

Plus Simmons summons excellent statistical evidence in his own right--the real useful statistics to look at in this situation is not general 4th down percentages, it's going for the 2 point conversion. Because that's what this is--you need 2 yards to win the game. It's for all intents and purposes the same thing.